Take Me To Your Liter

Metric3

Let’s see:  1 inch equals 2.54 centimeters, so 1 centimeter equals…hmm…

Whatever happened to that great push to fully implement the metric system of measurement in the United States?  I was only an elementary school student in the Seventies, yet I was not immune to the controversy surrounding some contemporary educational issues.  There was the backlash against New Math, for example, as parents questioned the relevance of learning abstract mathematical concepts to the computational competency of their children.  The use of phonics instruction still annoyed those who remembered becoming perfectly good readers without repeatedly breaking down words into their phonetic components.  I was dimly aware of these debates, but the hot issue that really got my attention was the impending rise and dominance of the metric system.

As a child, this major societal shift was presented to me as an inevitability, and I perceived a menacing future.  There would be no use resisting, it was implied.  It wouldn’t matter if you expressed a preference for the customary system or voiced an objection.  Well, you better learn to like it, because it’s coming!  By the time we were adults, we could expect grocery store shelves filled with canned goods packaged by the gram, gas stations selling liters of gas, and car speedometers indicating kilometers per hour.  I was apprehensive.  Just the sight of the fraction 5/9 in the Fahrenheit to Celsius conversion formula made me uneasy.

Unfortunately, performing cumbersome system conversions seemed to be the extent of the educational effort to make the metric system relevant to our everyday lives.  No wonder so many of us developed a prejudice against a measurement method that is preferred by nearly everyone else in the world. Read More

No Gutzon, No Glory

Rushmore

It can be hard to change your mind about things set in stone.  Especially icons.

My father worked second shift when I was very young, and it was not unusual for me to be awake to greet him when he returned home.  It might explain why my earliest memories include the experience of watching our local television station sign off for the night with a patriotic montage set to The Star Spangled Banner.  Somewhere among the rippling flags and sweeping aerial vistas was a glimpse of Mount Rushmore, and the sight of it stirred within me a deep and primal fascination.  The visceral impact of this enormous sculpture in the context of our national anthem and other famous monuments never left me.  I began a precocious campaign for my parents to take me to see “Mountain Rushmore.”

Within ten years we were there, standing on the observation platform and gawking up at Gutzon Borglum’s colossal sculpture.  It was enthralling to be in the presence of such an iconic monument.  Prior to actually being there, Mount Rushmore existed only in pictures and films, and though my mind knew that there really is such a place, as far as my own experience was concerned, the actual physical entity might have been as mythical as Atlantis.  But there it truly was, a granite reality that could not be denied. Read More

Reminiscents

Gyro500

I hadn’t thought about this object for quite some time.

The other I day I was teaching my class while walking about the room with a long, wooden pointer that I sometimes use to highlight important information but mostly enjoy twirling as a prop.  There’s something about giving it a few spins that seems to relax any physical tension while simultaneously enabling me to focus my thoughts.  On this occasion, I was giving some routine instructions, thinking ahead to how I might best manage the next activity, and absentmindedly spinning my pointer.  After a few rotations, I held the long stick still, and in doing so I unwittingly brought the small metal ring fixed to its blunt end to within a centimeter of my nostrils.

For an instant I was suddenly transported from my classroom to another place.  It was not so much a detailed location as it was a sort of vague, cerebral space, and dominating this mental plane was the vivid apparition of a gyroscope.  I recognized it at once as the cherished childhood possession that my sister had given me, one of a number of gifts that were thoughtfully chosen to improve my overall development.  Alas, her attempts to increase my physical activity were unsuccessful, as I never quite got the knack of shooting the basketball, and I simply could not advance more than several bounces on the pogo stick before careening dangerously askew.  But the gyroscope occupied my attention for many hours.  I would moisten the end of a string on my tongue, delicately thread and load the axle, then set it going with all my strength.  I loved watching it stay upright no matter how precarious  its perch.  The sturdy device had a peculiar smell, a dank and earthy metallic odor,  a sort of dull acridity that smelled just like…just like…well, just like the little metal ring on the blunt end of my classroom pointer.  I hadn’t thought about my old gyroscope in years, but everything from its shape to its heft in my hand suffused my mind in an instant.

Such is the power of our sense of smell to resurrect latent memories. Read More

Organization Man

CD_Organization

First by artist, then by original release date.  An island of control in a sea of chaos.

I am not an obsessively organized person, but I will acknowledge a few quirks that, to some, may represent an unnecessary attention to detail, if not a hint of madness.  Although many facets of general housekeeping escape my devoted attention (just ask my wife), there are certain areas in which I am particular.  None of them are of great importance, but they are distinct preferences nonetheless.

For example, I usually take care to sort the money in my wallet by denomination, from smallest to largest.  While I’m at it, I would prefer that all bills face the same way.  Never would I intentionally insert any currency into my wallet “head-first,” as I should not like to encounter an upside-down image when fishing for cash.  Not that I couldn’t deal with it, but I simply would rather not, and I don’t mind taking the few seconds to put a buck in the right way.  Okay, once I did further organize my ones by serial number, but that was when I was saddled with a few minutes of unoccupied tedium, and though it did provide me a tiny amount of mental satisfaction, trust me that you could take a peek inside my wallet right now, and I guarantee that if there’s any money in there at all, the serial numbers are all mixed up.  Not that it matters. Read More

Art For Hoi Polloi: Salvador Dali

DaliAtPMA

Lowbrow meets lowbrow: Rocky emulators sprint up the visage of Salvador Dali.

Recently I came across a live webcam of a construction site in St. Petersburg, Florida.  I was surprised to find not only active workers but fairly interesting activities going on, and I zoomed in to watch a pair of laborers installing triangular glass panes into a large, metallic lattice that bulged from a concrete edifice.  The structure looked somewhat odd for a conventional building but rather conservative for its intended purpose:  the next home of the Salvador Dali Museum.  Given the famous surrealist’s iconic imagery of melting watches and drooping appendages propped up by crutches, one might have expected a design that abandoned recognizable geometric forms altogether.

The new facility, slated to open in 2011, is only a few blocks from the current museum, but it will offer fifty percent more gallery space and more than twice the overall area.  More importantly, it will provide robust shelter from violent storms for its collection in a way that the present building does not;  so vulnerable is the existing museum to damage that its exhibits must be removed and stored during severe weather warnings.  Constructing a more secure home for these treasures sounds sensible to me, because I would hate for the world to lose the original work of such an incredibly talented and imaginative artist.  I have been captivated by Dali’s art all of my life, and obviously many people feel the same way.  Why, then, do I have the nagging sense that serious critics would dismiss his oeuvre as pandering to the lowest common denominator?

Perhaps because it does. Read More

Yes, Wonderful

GeorgeAngry500

Ever have one of those days?

I’ve been nominated for membership in the National Geographic Society.”

“Aw, youth is wasted on the wrong people!”

“This old thing?  Why, I only wear it when I don’t care how I look.”

“Well, I’m sorry – HEY!”

“Out you two pixies go, through the door or out the window!”

If the previous quotations are instantly recognizable to you as lines of dialogue from It’s A Wonderful Life, and if you cannot read the words without also hearing them and visualizing their associated characters, then you and I have something in common.  We’re two among the countless devotees of the 1946 Frank Capra classic, its sights and sounds replaying within our cerebral folds after many hours of repeated exposure.  There’s only one reason why anyone would voluntarily watch a movie again and again, and that is, of course, that you like it.  Obvious, right?  But the widespread appeal of this film is varied, and perhaps the only thing upon which all lovers of it will agree is that it is a great movie.

As for me, and in the words of Henry F. Potter, “I’ll go further than that.”  I think It’s A Wonderful Life is as close as anyone has come to making a perfect narrative movie. Read More

Please Rewind

FirstVCR500

Do the abbreviations SP, LP, and SLP mean anything to you?

The year is 2009.  The setting:  an elementary school.  During a break between classes, I dart into the office and scan the staff mailboxes.  Lurking in my apportioned slot is a shrink-wrapped, rectangular box of vaguely familiar dimensions.  I retrieve the item and turn it over in my hands, noticing the logo of the publisher that sold us our recently adopted textbook series.  Good heavens!  I exclaim mentally, as an archaeologist might upon uncovering an ancient artifact. This is a VHS tape!  I stand there bewildered for a moment, puzzling over the fact that a major educational publishing house has issued new product in this archaic format.  It’s a little like having an auto dealer hand me a crank to start my car.

Though VCR’s still doggedly fast-forward and rewind within the dusty, pre-fab entertainment cabinets of many homes and upon the media carts of outdated classrooms, the formerly ubiquitous devices are in terminal decline, destined for exile in an archival land of film projectors and 8-track players.  DVD’s are already experiencing their own heyday, with clouds of streamable digital content predicted to make those aluminum discs obsolete.  If it weren’t for the voluminous amount of existing VHS tape preserving all that has yet to be digitized, getting your hands on a functioning VCR might be as difficult as tracking down a vintage pair of parachute pants.  One day soon, they’ll be as quaint as turntables, available exclusively as a means to transfer precious analog moments to your hard drive.

I can still remember the twinge of jealousy I felt when I heard that the Walsh family down the block had a VCR. Read More

The Price of Vandalism

PlaygroundVandalism

Ramp to nowhere:  the morning after fire destroyed the Sway Fun glider.

Where were you on the Saturday night after Thanksgiving?  That’s what the police will be asking you, if they ever discover that you were responsible for the apparent act of arson that lit up the field behind our house like a campfire gone awry.  Have you thought about what you might say?  If your alibi doesn’t persuade the authorities of your innocence, they’re likely to stare into your guilty eyes and demand an answer to the question the whole neighborhood is wondering:  What were you thinking?

I can only speculate – and hope – that you weren’t thinking.  Because if your irresponsible and cowardly crime was the deliberate end of thoughtful planning, then breaking the law is merely the beginning of your problems.  I would prefer to think that you are young, perhaps one of several peers involved in a prank that got out of hand before it could be stopped, and the whole unfortunate incident is very much contrary to your character.  I would like to believe that you are ashamed of your actions and consumed with regret.  I wish that you could muster the tremendous courage to step forward, admit what you have done, and begin the long journey to make a complete reparation for it.  That is the most optimistic scenario I can envision. Read More

A Study In Scarred Lit.

SherlockHolmes

John Watson regales us with yet another adventurous yarn.

There is a wonderful moment in John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces in which the eccentric protagonist is so incensed by what he sees on a movie screen that he cannot help shouting out his indignation.  “Oh, good heavens!” bellows Ignatius J. Reilly to the annoyance and unease of fellow patrons.  “What degenerate produced this abortion?”

Although I’m a passionate proponent of politeness in movie theaters, I can empathize with Reilly’s plight.  There is a point where one’s artistic sensibility can become so offended that it is impossible to remain silent.  That’s why I’ll be staying away from screenings of one of this holiday season’s anticipated blockbusters, Sherlock Holmes.  I wouldn’t want to involuntarily proclaim my outrage aloud and thus violate my own standards for audience etiquette.

I enjoy the canonical Sherlock Holmes, which is to say that I prefer the novels and stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  I’m not a snob about it, though – if a later author produces a story that is true to the spirit, logic, and language of the canon, I’m all for it.  The original stories are so beautifully crafted that I find many adaptations enjoyable but nevertheless diluted.  I’ll take a good verbatim reading of a classic Holmes story over the best dramatization any day.

From the looks of the Guy Ritchie-directed Sherlock Holmes (if trailers and other advance publicity are any indication), this latest effort appears to be not so much an adaptation as an outright bastardization. Read More

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